West Orange High School hosted Dr. Missy Strong for a professional development workshop that weaved together neuroscience, music, instrumental band, chorus, general music, and an introduction to Dr. Feierabend’s Conversational Solfege. If you think that this was hard to do, you would be right. But, not for Missy. This was an amazing workshop full of ideas and researched-based, proven information.

“Musicality is a natural ability of the brain” – Stefan Koelsch 2011

Music and Neuroscience

If you have attended Missy’s workshops or classes in the past, then you know that she has great knowledge about the correlation between the development of the brain and early childhood music. She reminded us that it is a myth that only a few are musically talented and that research has shown that 68% of people have an average capacity to make music. However, everyone can make music.

From ages 0-7, early childhood and elementary music educators have the ability to mold each child’s musical vessel. Children come to us with clay that is ready to be molded by their home environments as well as their educational environments. It is our job as early childhood and elementary music educators to begin what Dr. Feierabend calls, “the thirty year plan.” We are to assist the children to become tuneful (to be able to hear the music and sing it), beatful (to feel the pulse of music and to be able to move to it), and artful (to be moved my music and have music elicit a response). When they are tuneful, beatful, and artful in the early years, they are ready for Dr. Feierabend’s conversational solfege in the later years.

Conversational Solfege

Conversational Solfege is a research-based, practitioner-proven program focusing on great repertoire and inner hearing. It is based on the following concepts:

  • Great music. You must make informed decisions about the best repertoire for your students.
  • Similar to a conversational language program. 
    • Overarching: Sound before symbol.
  • Takes students from readiness to creating music through inner hearing.
  • Notational literacy helps foster musical independence.
  • Create independent musical thinkers.

Having not taken the conversational solfege courses, this introduction was perfect for me. It gave me an overview and answered many of my questions about the program. I was reminded that this is not a curriculum. It is one of the three parts of every general music lesson. When Missy broke down a 30-minute elementary general music lesson that incorporates conversational solfege, it looked like this:

30 Minute Class

  • Do Music (canons, games, dances, instruments) – 12-15 minutes
  • Notational Literacy (Conversational Solfege) – 10-15 minutes 
  • Learn something about Music (History, elements, genres, etc) 3-5 minutes 
  • This timing will change when they get older.

Doing Music is Different than Learning About Music

I like that Missy reminds us that the act of doing music and learning about music should not be equal in an elementary music classroom. When you teach elementary music, you know that if you took a majority of your lesson for teaching about music (a lesson on dynamics or learning about composer) and only had a small portion dedicated to doing music, then I know for a fact from my classroom, the lesson lacks student engagement. Students at the elementary ages need lessons that have a great balance and combination of doing music and learning about music. As your students get older, the about music portion will become larger and more significant because middle schoolers’ musical vessels are ready for that. However, in the elementary years, that engagement of having students do music in each class is important and vital for their musical experiences and successes.

How Does Music Technology Fit In?

In the elementary grades, if we are promoting doing music, how would technology fit into this? From numerous music education networks and boards that I read and admin, there are concerns that music technology means taking away from doing music. However, as with creating a lesson that has a balance of doing music and learning about music, lessons can also have a balance of technological tools that have the goals of helping the students do and learn about music.

However, technology used in a lesson so that creating, performing, responding to, and connecting to music is reached or elevated in ways that traditional methods are not working, is key.

Technology for technology’s sake equals a lesson that is lost in its direction and goal. However, technology used in a lesson so that creating, performing, responding to, and connecting to music is reached or elevated in ways that traditional methods are not working, is key. An example is music creation. If your students have challenges creating music in traditional ways, then technology can assist with students successfully making music. Look at virtual instrument apps found here for 1:1 chromebooks and here for iPads. I also have students compose with Noteflight if a traditional pencil and paper are challenging. Finally, I have children learn all tools from traditional to technological and then when we have a project-based learning activity, the students have the knowledge to choose the best tool that will assist them in making, creating, and doing music.

My Final Takeaway: The Singing Band

Missy showed an example of an elementary band (possibly first or second year band students) where the teacher who has implemented Dr. Feierabend’s First Steps and Conversational Solfege approaches in her general music classes, transferred them so her band could successfully sing their parts in solfege and then play them. Having them sing and then play, gave the students a better understanding of pitch, rhythm, intonation, and intervals.

The day after the workshop, I tried this with my 5th grade clarinetists and flutists. Most of them have been in my music classroom since preschool and kindergarten. Though when they were young, I was not using Dr. Feierabend’s approaches as much as I do now, I thought that I would try the “sing before play” approach. I was amazed! They were having difficulty with an eighth note passage. I had them clap the rhythm and move their bodies to the rhythm. But, this time, I had them sing it. They sang the passage and then went to play it. The rhythm and technique improved immediately. They smiled big when they realized that they played the passage better and achieved a musical success. I praised them for trying a new technique and for always being open to learning new ways to achieve musical successes.

If you have the opportunity to take Conversational Solfege courses with Missy, Dr. Feierabend, or many of the other certified teachers, think about doing it. I always come away from Missy’s workshops not only with a better understanding of the approach but with answers to why students learn in various ways and how I can be a better teacher for them. I love that she combines music with “mind, brain, education” in a way that every music educator, no matter what age level or musical focus they teach, can relate.

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